I sat in my office planning the term and crying; I didn't want to teach anymore. That was the moment I knew there was something wrong; I never thought of my job as actual work - teaching drama was creatively challenging but always fun, always emotionally satisfying. People liked how I did things and I had taken on some teachers. I had a number of centres around Dublin and I was directing professionally, sometimes juggling two or three separate productions at a time. I had left myself with absolutely no personal time in a home with two very young children. Although my husband was the most amazing house husband (I used to say he was a better mother than me) I had spread myself too thin. When I told him I wanted to stop teaching, he sent me to the doctor. I had suffered from ante and post natal depression on one of my pregnancies and it looked as if I was suffering again. That time I had exercised my way to wellness, this time I simply had no energy. I wondered if there was a natural remedy and that's how I came to take St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). In a matter of weeks, I felt as if I had been lifted up out of my dark self. The joy of being given a leg up, as it were, led to a deep honouring of the plant. I was so grateful to it.
A woman known as 'The Healing Nun' (oh, you'll hear more about her folks) re-introduced me to herbal medicine years after I had given up on my studies, loaning me her Maria Treben books and telling me stories about eating garlic cooked nettles on toast. The first thing I looked up was St John's Wort, and dragging out my old text books I learned as much as I could about my green saviour. Maria Treben's book 'Health Through God's Pharmacy' mentions the legend behind the plant, dedicated to St John the Baptist, with old Christian beliefs that the red juice of the yellow flowers connected to the blood of Jesus. "The fact is," says Treben, "that St John's Wort oil is the best wound oil, it soothes the pain, is anti-inflammatory and healing." I know this is true because I've made the oil and I've given it to people suffering from arthritis, muscular and joint pain and it definitely brings comfort.
Many of you will be familiar with St John's Wort tablets for the likes of SAD (seasonal affective disorder), or mild depression, which I can vouch for too, but it's interesting that folklore believed it to be a plant that had the power to drive away witches, ghosts and demons (although my daughters tell me in another life I would have been burnt at the stake!) My cherished Culpepper's Herbal (published 1649) recommends a tincture of the flowers in spirits of wine to ward off melancholy and insanity (Hmm...) Medicinally it must be prescribed by your doctor here in Ireland, although it can be bought over the counter in most other countries, and in Northern Ireland. Amongst my favourite herbal remedies books is 'Hedgerow Medicine' by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal. The layout and description of the modern and ancient uses of hedgerow herbs is so clear and engaging and I've made so many healing remedies using their recipes. I also follow the herbalist Brigid Anna McNeill on Instagram, her feed is pure joy.
If you find some St John's Wort growing in the wild, use the forager's rule of thumb and don't take more than you need, or no more than 10% of what's growing. It needs to be picked on a sunny day when the sun is high in the sky. You could make an infused oil or a tincture:
St John's Wort Oil : Put the yellow flower heads into a glass jar and cover with olive oil, leaving it in a sunny spot for a month. Shake regularly to ensure the flowers stay completely covered. After a month, strain the liquid, which should be the gorgeous red you see in the photo above.
St John's Wort Tincture: As above, but cover the flowers with vodka instead of oil, and leave in a darkened place away from light for a month, and strain in the same way. Bottle and label, preferably with a dropper so you can control the dosage (1-4ml daily according to Bruton-Seal/Seal) and take for SAD, mild depression, nervous exhaustion, PMS and menopausal moods.
Note: Do not take St John's Wort if you are on anti depression medication, and seek medical advise before taking it if you take any strong medication, including contraceptives. It can make you more sensitive to the sun, so be careful if you are fair skinned. Check with the photo here and other images to be sure that you have the right herb.